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Taking Aspirin To Prevent Cancer: A Top Scientist Explains

Cancer research pioneer Robert Weinberg of MIT
Cancer research pioneer Robert Weinberg of MIT

You see, a couple of years ago I interviewed the eminent MIT scientist Bob Weinberg, one of the world's premier authorities on the genes involved in cancer. He's a gifted and patient explainer, but it was hard slogging for me to follow him through the thickets of biological processes involved in metastasis and stem cell replication.

At one point, he mentioned, offhand, that his work had helped convince him to take one baby aspirin a day to help ward off cancer. This, I could understand! Purely on the basis of his towering stature, I started doing the same thing myself. (Ah, the power of the testimonial!) Given today's news, I asked Bob to explain in brief his understanding of how aspirin may prevent cancer. He kindly obliged:

"Many human cancers begin in tissues that have been undergoing chronic, low-grade inflammation for many years. Somehow, inflamed tissues represent hospitable sites in the body for cancers to begin. Each tissue may have its own reasons for being inflamed, but the end result is the same — chronic inflammation in the gut, in the liver, in the prostate or in the pancreas (and probably other tissues as well) creates sites in which cancers can begin and grow.

A critical element in establishing and maintaining inflammation is a small molecule that is made naturally in the body's tissues called prostaglandin E2, or simply PGE2. Its production and subsequent effects in tissues is an important element in supporting both short- and long-term inflammation. PGE2 is made by an enzyme called COX-2, and COX-2 is inhibited by aspirin.

With low levels of aspirin, one can slow down the firing of the COX-2 enzyme, reduce PGE2 production, and damp down chronic inflammation. Indeed, this is the reason why many people take aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs for arthritis, which also represents a chronic inflammatory condition, occurring however in a tissue (our joints) where cancer rarely if ever arises.

There is a down-side, however, to taking chronic anti-inflammatory drugs — in excessive amounts they can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, and more than 10,000 people a year die because they are taking too many anti-inflammatory drugs and their health is not being closely monitored by their physicians. However, the daily 81 mg "baby aspirin" seems to be a safe dose for most people."

Just an added caution here: Please check with your doctor before starting on aspirin or any other medication.

This program aired on December 7, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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